Bula!—which means “life” or “to live”—is the traditional exclamation before drinking kava tea in Fijian culture. The ritual has also been adopted in some kava bars stateside.
I knew very little about it until 2017, when I was introduced to the culture through a friend who knew a kava bartender in Brooklyn, where I live. I had been searching for a receptive community where I could meet like-minded people, share ideas and make harm reduction resources available. I checked out the bar and it seemed like a great space to distribute DanceSafe adulterant screening kits and occasionally host meetings or social gatherings.
I initially found the beverage itself less than desirable, however. In its default tea form, kava has a bitter, chalky taste. I’m also used to ingesting a substance and feeling noticeable effects within the hour. However, kava has a reverse tolerance effect—meaning someone who is new to it often feels nothing the first time, or the first few times. So I was unimpressed with it and opted instead for the kratom that was also available most days I went to the bar.
I didn’t want to create a new habit that emulated my former patterns. So instead, I gave kava another chance.
Despite this, after becoming both unemployed and sober from alcohol, the bar became a space where I often went to get myself out of the apartment and work productively in a relaxing atmosphere. Low-key social spaces that don’t promote or prioritize alcohol, where small groups can get together and that are open late can be hard to find. So it was perfect for me.
Since kratom is a partial opioid agonist, tolerance to the substance builds with frequent use, and it can become habit-forming, with some mild-but-unpleasant side effects. I still find kratom highly beneficial in moderation, but I didn’t want to create a new habit that emulated my former patterns and consequences of alcohol use. So instead, I gave kava another chance. After consuming it more regularly, I found that it did have the calming effects that I desired, but without the side effects I was experiencing with kratom.
What Kava Does
Kava, or Piper methysticum, is a tropical evergreen shrub in the nightshade family, native to the South Pacific islands, including Vanuatu, Fiji, Hawaii and others. Its roots are mashed or ground up and consumed orally, typically as a bitter-tasting beverage. It has long been used for medicinal, religious, political, cultural and social purposes throughout Polynesia, including as an aphrodisiac.
In Western societies it has been used to treat anxiety, tension and restlessness, as well as to successfully counteract alcohol use disorder. A preliminary study conducted in 2001 found that the active ingredients in kava, known as kavapyrones, bind to many sites in the brain that are associated with addiction and craving.
It’s also catching on as a social substance in the US, where kava bars are spreading—noticeably so in Brooklyn. Many bars can whip up some pretty tasty kava cocktails with ingredients such as lavender, mint, cayenne, mocha and chai. It also comes in tinctures or capsules.
Regarded as an herbal supplement, kava is currently unscheduled in the US (and most countries), meaning that it is legal to sell, possess or ingest. Currently, there are no known calls to schedule or regulate kava in the US. However, due to concerns over potential liver toxicity, numerous other countries have placed regulatory controls on kava, ranging from warnings to consumers to removing kava products from the marketplace.
Researchers suspect that GABA activity may boost mood, or have a calming, relaxing effect.
Kava acts on the brain’s GABA receptors. GABA is an important neurotransmitter in the central nervous system that controls most of the functions of the brain and body. Low levels of GABA activity may be linked to conditions such as anxiety or mood disorders, epilepsy, chronic pain, insomnia, depression and psychiatric disorders. There have been a range of clinical trials demonstrating that kava may have benefits for people with sleep problems, social anxiety and chronic nociceptive pain—which is pain from physical damage such as that from a sports injury, a dental procedure, arthritis, or other physiological functions that are impacted by low levels of GABA activity.
Researchers suspect that GABA activity may boost mood, or have a calming, relaxing effect. Other substances that promote this include alcohol and benzodiazepines.
Many people I know and the research I’ve done suggest that kava users report not only positive social implications but also improved mental health, better memory, a better sleep schedule and easing of physical pain. As long as they avoid taking excessive amounts, most users report a sensation of happy lightheartedness, comfort and satisfaction. Muscle-relaxing, antispasmodic, analgesic, local anesthetic and nerve-protecting properties have been pharmacologically demonstrated.
A US Kava Culture
Amanda Yee is an avid kava drinker who lives in Brooklyn. “I first learned about kava a few years ago from a New Yorker article, which highlighted the opening of Kavasutra,” she told Filter, referencing a bar located in Manhattan. “I think the community first developed there, because there were probably people who can’t or just decide not to drink, and they were eager for a place to hang out where they didn’t feel pressured to drink alcohol. I’m guessing kava (and kratom) gained popularity from this location, and the community started to grow.”
“I’ve made a lot of friends through this culture,” Yee continued. “I can’t drink, because like a lot of Asians, I lack the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol, so it makes me really ill. But alcohol plays such a central role in social relationships when you’re an adult, so I would often go to a bar just to hang out with friends and not drink. Through this community, I found other people who shared my interests, shared my politics, who also can’t drink—whether because they struggle with addiction issues, or they find alcohol exacerbates their anxiety or depression. That makes me feel less alone.”
It’s perhaps more similar to the “coffee” shops of Amsterdam than to noisy and chaotic bars and cafes.
The bar I frequent feels like a tight-knit community between regulars and employees, and a sanctuary. The atmosphere is calm, and you’re welcome to spend extended periods of time there—in this way it’s perhaps more similar to the “coffee” shops of Amsterdam than to noisy and chaotic bars and cafes.
“What this space meant to me was an alcohol-alternative space, another path to promote social connection and mood-boosting perception,” Mistik The Blue Dragoon, an artist and event host at a bar called Caffeine Underground, told Filter.
When anxiety disorders are so common, it’s no wonder that kava establishments are gaining popularity. In a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study conducted in 2013, kava showed a significant reduction of anxiety for patients with generalized anxiety symptoms compared with placebo. It is pitched by the bars as a healthier and safer alternative to alcohol.
“Most of the people I’ve introduced it to say that they like kava/kratom better than alcohol,” said Yee, “because it alleviates anxiety but you’re still lucid, so you don’t make bad decisions and you don’t experience a hangover in the morning.”
Concerns Around Liver Damage
That’s not to say there are no potential harms. The FDA has warned of the potential for liver damage. However, these cases are rare. A total of 25 adverse events reports about kava were submitted to the FDA from 2004 to 2015. On the other hand, FDA research suggests that fewer than 1 percent of the severe adverse events caused by dietary supplements are actually reported.
There are several theories about why repeated kava use might cause liver damage. First, kava is metabolized by a group of liver enzymes that are involved in metabolizing many drugs. According to a 2008 study on the toxicity of kava, it may “tie up” these enzymes so that they cannot readily metabolize the other drugs, causing those drugs to accumulate and damage the liver. Second, the kava itself, especially in inconsistent preparations, might be metabolized into substances that directly cause damage to the liver cells. However, it has also been observed that genetic differences of the descendants of Asian migrants to the Pacific may explain why they have supposedly not experienced kava hepatotoxicity.
Other researchers believe that the liver toxicity comes from kava often being taken with alcohol, and that the liver damage is due to alcohol. Yet another theory is that inflammation and depletion of important substances in the liver are to blame. These latter two theories seem to be less supported by scientific data.
Pacific islanders have traditionally used kava and, while it has never been thoroughly studied, there are no reports of higher occurrence of liver injuries there. There was one incident in the US where a mother called Poison Control because a father had mistakenly given their five-year-old daughter a full dropper of a liquid kava product instead of vitamins. Poison Control assured her that this one-time dose, even in a child, should be well tolerated. When Poison Control followed up the next day, the child had no symptoms. Kava has a generally safe toxicity profile.
There is also a political aspect to Brooklyn’s kava culture. When a handful of workers unionized, protested against pay and conditions and migrated from House of Kava in 2018, many patrons, including Yee and myself, supported them and followed their lead. This was a direct result of the bonds made while enjoying the anxiolytic brews.
“A labor dispute among the manager and the bartenders forced a group of regulars to organize a boycott in support of the staff,” recalled Yee. “During this time, we organized kava/kratom pop-up basement parties where the community we developed could continue. Although long, the labor struggle ultimately ended in our favor. House of Kava suffered from the bad publicity, lost a lot of clientele, and ultimately closed a year later. I would like to see the kava/kratom community get more involved with these kinds of struggles.”
If kava continues to become a more widespread alternative to alcohol and other substances in the US, both the public health and social impacts of this change could be far-reaching and positive.
Top two photos by Mohawk Greene. Third photo via United Kava.